• Do states have a right to enact a coronavirus quarantine of out-of-state visitors? A lawsuit has been filed challenging this issue in Hawaii — a lawsuit, we should add, which has backing from the US Department of Justice.
  • At issue, according to the lawsuit, is whether it’s discriminatory to force visitors to self-quarantine when you’re not requiring the same of state residents.
  • Visitors to Hawaii are currently required to self-quarantine for 14 days or face a penalty of up to 1 year in jail and a $5,000 fine.

The so-called “equal protection clause” of the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution underpins a wide array of landmark legal cases due to its declaration that US states cannot “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

Consider that language, now, within the context of the current coronavirus pandemic. Specifically, on the coronavirus quarantines that we’re seeing in places around the country, whereby states are sequestering US citizens newly arrived from other states (often for a period of 14 days). If states aren’t mandating blanket 14-day quarantines of their own residents currently, do they have a legal right to require that every US resident entering from out-of-state abide by a 14-day quarantine? Maybe not, according to a lawsuit against Hawaii’s quarantine rules for out-of-state visitors — a lawsuit, we should add, that is being backed by the US Department of Justice.

A group of Nevada and California residents filed the suit challenging Hawaii’s rules, which require anyone entering the state to self-quarantine for 14 days — that period being the length of time in which it should become clear whether or not a person has been infected by the coronavirus.

The suit argues that these rules discriminate against visitors from out-of-state, and the Department of Justice filed a statement Tuesday in support of that challenge. It reads, in part:

“The Constitution does not permit the effective discrimination challenged in this case. Although Hawaii may adopt reasonable measures to protect its residents from the COVID-19 pandemic, it cannot impose measures that ‘in practical operation’ discriminate against out-of-state visitors, unless the measures are substantially related to ensuring public safety.”

As part of Hawaii’s rules governing out-of-state visitors, they have to quarantine themselves at a “designated quarantine location.” Moreover, they have to stay there and finish the quarantine before renting a vehicle, taking an Uber ride, or engage in other activities — and violators can face up to 1 year in jail and a $5,000 fine.

In “considering whether the effective discrimination here is sufficiently tailored, the court should not ignore the context of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the Justice Department writes about Hawaii’s rules. “The Constitution does not hobble states from taking necessary, temporary measures — including quarantines — to meet a genuine emergency. But even during a pandemic, state actions undertaken in service of the public health cannot be divorced from that end and cannot clearly infringe constitutional rights.”

Andy is a reporter in Memphis who also contributes to outlets like Fast Company and The Guardian. When he’s not writing about technology, he can be found hunched protectively over his burgeoning collection of vinyl, as well as nursing his Whovianism and bingeing on a variety of TV shows you probably don’t like.